Why do beluga whales enjoy the clarinet note G?

Scientists for years have tried to figure out what whale song means. David Rothenberg has a different approach: He decided to play clarinet to a bunch of beluga whales to see if they respond.

It turns out this is pretty hard to do, because the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act criminalizes all “harassment” of marine animals, which apparently includes jamming with them. Anyway, Rothenberg is a naturalist who’s also a musician, and who has spent years experimenting by playing his clarinet with various animals; his web site boasts of playing in “a band of birds and crickets”. So he finally got some Russian scientists to take him to the White Sea, where Rothenberg would have unfettered access to some Belugas.

Most of the time, he didn’t feel like the whales were responding at all. Beluga music is extraterrestrially weird — ranging from grinding buzzsaw-like sounds to whistles that float in the upper ranges of the human ear’s range. (Check out a couple of samples here.) So Rothenberg admits that the majority of the time, “we’re playing at and around each other.”

There’s one clear exception: The note G, which seemed to connect each time he sustained it. As Rothenberg wrote in Orion magazine:

Before coming to Karelia, I spent three days at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, where I tested my equipment and played clarinet to the captive belugas there. On the first day, no response seemed to come from the whales, but by the third day, one pregnant whale was inclined to copy one of my notes exactly, a middle G. Later I analyzed a sonogram of the encounter and was able to see how closely the whale note resembled the clarinet note —not just the pitch, but the phrasing. The sonogram showed that the overtone structure, the real timbre or color of the sound, was quite close to what I was playing. The whale had definitely listened and given her response.

In the White Sea I try the same tone and right away there is a response! Either that sound is easy for belugas to master, or it is already a pitch that means something to them. This isn’t science, so I can’t be rigorous or conclusive about it, but I feel as if I am getting through.

A whale and I share a note for a moment or two.

I’m probably dating myself, but my earliest memory of whale music was back in the 70s, when National Geographic would include little flexible plastic records in “whale” issues; you could rip them out and play them on your record player. I’d sit there, at age 7 or whatever, listening to this hallucinogenically odd stuff. Though there’s a strong whiff of patchouli coming off Rothenberg’s clarinet experiments, I have to admit, the idea of playing music to animals makes a lot of sense. The semantics and syntax of instrumental music are may well be closer to what passes for speech in the animal kingdom than what we know of as “language”.

(Thanks to SciTech Daily for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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